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Is the Cultic Installation at Dan Really an Olive Press? Suzanne F. Singer, BAR 10:06, Nov-Dec 1984.

Olive Press or cult installationA discussion that started in BAR escalates in the scholarly world

In an article in the September/October 1981 issue of BAR (“The Remarkable Discoveries at Tel Dan,” BAR 07-05), John Laughlin identified an unusual installation at Tel Dan, in northern Israel, as an Israelite cult installation associated with a water libation ceremony. In explaining the installation as having been used in a religious water libation ceremony, Laughlin adopted the interpretation of Tel Dan’s excavator, Avraham Biran.1 The installation is dated to the tenth or ninth century B.C.

The unusual installation consists of three parts. In the center is a sunken basin whose rim is at ground level. The plastered sides of the basin slope inward. Flagstones cover the bottom of the basin. At ground level, the basin is flanked on either side with a basalt slab. Each of these basalt slabs slopes toward the third element of the installation—an open-mouth pottery storage jar sunken up to its mouth at the end of each basalt slab. Each jar is plastered around its open mouth.

In their discussions, Biran and Laughlin were not sure just how the installation was used in the water libation ceremony. Laughlin wrote- “Probably the water was ladled from the basin and poured onto the basalt slabs and flowed from there into the jars. But more than this we do not know.”

A final mystery involved a pile of ten stones with holes in them found next to the cult installation. No purpose could even be conjectured for the stones.

The strange installation, framed by walls on three sides, was located at the far end of a room or courtyard. This room was just 70 feet south of the sacred area or temenos at Dan, an area Biran believes was the cult place of the northern kingdom of Israel from the time of Jeroboam I in the tenth century B.C., until the eighth century B.C. The central feature of the temenos was a large platform, described by Biran as a bamah.a Close by, in a court adjacent to the open-air platform, a nearly complete horned incense altar was found, probably dating to the ninth century B.C. when the bamah was rebuilt and expanded.

In a letter in Queries & Comments, BAR 08-01, Cathy and Terry Small of Berkeley, California, proposed that the Dan installation was not used for a water libation ceremony, but was part of an olive press.b The Smalls suggested that the central sunken basin was used for the initial crushing of the olives in the first stage of olive oil production. After the “first quality” oil was removed, the oil pulp could be bagged and further crushed “by pressing it beneath a heavy beam.” This could have been done on the slabs on either side of the central basin. The olive oil removed in this way would have flowed down the slabs into the sunken jars at either end. The Smalls even had an explanation for the puzzling stones with holes in them- the perforated stones were weights to hang on the beam that crushed the bagged olive pulp. Both John Laughlin and Avraham Biran rejected the Smalls’ suggestions. They did not believe the installation could have been used to press oil from olives.

Now, two scholars from the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago have published the same suggestion made by Cathy and Terry Small, closely following the Smalls’ argument. Although the article by Lawrence Stager and Samuel Wolffc appeared after the Smalls’ letter was printed in BAR, Stager and Wolff reached their conclusions independently, having written their analysis before the Smalls’ letter was published in January 1982.

In Stager and Wolff’s analysis, the perforated stones are a key element supporting the conclusion that the Dan installation is an olive press. “The stones are too large,” they say, “to be loom weights or net sinkers. They vaguely resemble small anchors, but votive anchors at this landlocked site seem unlikely.” Most likely, the two scholars conclude, the perforated stones were counterpoise weights for a beam or lever press. What would have been pressed? Stager and Wolff note that “since the substantial force that a beam press applies is hardly necessary to express juice from the grape, the olive remains the only obvious choice.”

Like the Smalls, Stager and Wolff note that olive oil production is a two-step process first, crushing the olive; then pressing the pulp to express the olive oil. The expressed oil flows into a channel leading to a vat or vessel. Stager and Wolff propose that at Tel Dan, the olives were first crushed in the central plastered basin to produce an oily pulp. Then, water was added to the pulp, causing the oil to rise to the surface, where it was collected. Probably the pulp was then placed in baskets stacked on top of the basalt slabs for pressing. Each slab was serviced by its own beam press, with one end of the beam fixed in a notch in a wall to the west of the installation and with the other end hung with weights that pulled the beam down across the top of the stack of pulp-filled baskets. Oil expressed by the beam’s pressure ran into the grooves cut into the basalt slabs and flowed into the underground storage jars, where it remained until it was ladled out.

If Biran’s tenth- or ninth-century B.C. date for the installation is correct, then the Dan oil press is the earliest example known from Palestine. Other two-beam olive presses sharing a common crushing basin have been found from the eighth or seventh century B.C. at Gezer, at Tell Beit Mirsim and at Beth Shemesh. Recently, an almost exact parallel to the Dan installation was found at Tel Batash, a site identified as Biblical Timnah. Archaeologists George L. Kelm and Amihai Mazar reported2 that, in the courtyard of a seventh-century B.C. pillared house, they found “an oil press containing a large stone trough and two stone vats built into a plastered stone platform.” The excavators suggest that the crushed olives were placed in woven straw baskets over the open mouths of the vats. Then a beam with weights attached pressed on the stack until the olive oil dripped into the open vats.d

There is one striking difference between the Dan press and those presses at Beth Shemesh, Tell Beit Mirsim, Gezer and Tel Batash. The latter four presses were found in domestic/industrial contexts; the press at Dan—if that’s what it was—was located in the temenos or sacred area.

The location of the alleged press at Dan—in an indisputably cultic area—was one of the reasons Laughlin rejected the olive press suggestion when it was made by Mr. and Mrs. Small- “That the inhabitants of the city would have engaged in such an activity as the making of olive oil in a sacred area is unlikely,” he said.

Stager and Wolff make a special point of demonstrating that this location for an oil press may not be so incongruous as it first seems. Olive oil was widely used for ritual purposes in Biblical times. Moreover, “temple industries” have been found in cultic areas at other excavated sites.

We know that kings were anointed with olive oil at their coronations. Before the Temple in Jerusalem was built, this ceremony took place at the “tent-shrine” by the Gihon Spring in the City of David (1 Kings 1-38–39). We are not informed about the coronation ceremonies of the Israelite kings; it seems likely, however, that the service was conducted in Samaria rather than in either of the two religious centers, Dan and Bethel.

Although no evidence has been uncovered at Dan for even an occasional anointing ceremony, two other ritual uses for oil do suggest plausible reasons for having a permanent oil press in the temenos at Dan. These uses are libation offerings and fuel for sanctuary lamps.

Olive oil was used in the lamps that burned in the sanctuary. In the Tabernacle tradition, “pure oil of crushed olives” (sûemen zayit zaµk kaµtît) was prescribed for this purpose (Exodus 27-20; Leviticus 24-2). Only “pure” (zak [masc.], zakkah [fem.]) oil and frankincense were to be used inside the Tabernacle, the holiest sphere of the temenos; for sacrifices of oil and frankincense offered outside, in the court, this specification did not obtain. There was also the practical benefit of burning “pure” oil in the inner sanctum- the walls and curtains were less likely to be darkened with soot, because pure oil burns with an almost smokeless flame.

A number of ostraca found in eighth-century B.C. Samaria record shipments received of “washed oil” (smn rh\s), probably vocalized samn raµh\uµs\). Stager recently wrote3 that in all probability, samn raµh\uµs\ is the north Israelite term for what the Bible refers to as sûemen kaµtît, literally “crushed oil.” In Biblical times, both terms referred to the finest quality oil.e

This finest quality oil came from the first crushing, done in a mortar or vat before pressing. By on-site inspection of olive oil production, the priests could guarantee the quality of fuel for the lamps. In the sacred area at Dan, terra-cotta sanctuary lamps set on high pedestals—including a seven-spouted variety—were found. The sûemen zayit zaµk kaµtît expressed from olives in the Dan installation may have burned in such lamps after an on-site purity inspection by the resident priests.

According to the Bible, olive oil was also used to make cereal offerings on altars or in temple courtyards. The cereal offering (minhah), according to priestly tradition, consisted mainly of fine ground flour (solet) mixed with a high proportion of oil of crushed olives (Numbers 28-4–5; Exodus 29-40). Although the proportion of ingredients in the minhah-offering may have varied from time to time (c.f. Numbers 28-4–5; Ezekiel 46-13–15), it seems likely that olive oil was always a primary ingredient, especially because of its combustible qualities.

At Dan, the olive oil manufactured in the temenos area probably was used not only to light the oil lamps, but also was sold to worshippers as an “approved” product that could be mixed with their burnt grain offerings.

Temple industries in sacred areas have a long history in Palestine—a fact that gives additional support to the likelihood that the Dan installation was an olive press. In the temenos at Nahariyah, Moshe Dothan found a stone mold for casting a metal figurine (probably of silver) in the forecourt of the sanctuary. This mold dates to the Middle Bronze period (c. 1800–1550 B.C.) Apparently, the stone mold was used to manufacture naked horned-goddess figurines in the cultic area, for use in some religious rite.

Dothan also discovered seven-spouted oil lamps within the sacred precinct at Nahariyah. The oil for the lamps as well as for offerings may have been produced nearby in a sunken, slate-lined receptacle that was probably an olive crushing vat like the central receptacle at Dan.

At Hazor in the courtyard of the Late Bronze I (1550–1400 B.C.) temple, Yigael Yadin found clear indications of an on-the-spot industry serving temple needs—in this case, a pottery kiln to fire small vessels to contain the offerings of worshippers. The pottery vessels were probably sold to worshippers making offerings at the temple. A similar arrangement was found at Iron Age II (eighth–seventh centuries B.C.) Arad.

In the cultic structure at tenth-century B.C. Ta‘anach, evidence of still another type of temple-related on-site industry was discovered, a clay mold for making terra-cotta figurines of the “Tambourine Goddess.”

In New Testament times, pigeons, oxen and sheep for sacrifice were sold to worshippers in the court of the Jerusalem Temple (Mark 11-15, John 2-14). The First Temple was also a bustling scene of activity and industry connected with the cult.

Their reinterpretation of the Dan “water libation” installation as an olive press leads Stager and Wolff to take a fresh look at other installations, including one at Tell el-Farah (North), that had also been interpreted as a cult installation. It, too, according to Stager and Wolff, is an olive press. At Farah (North) Roland de Vaux found what he described as a square pedestal base next to a hollowed-out stone basin. (The small stone basin was replaced by a larger slab-lined one in a subsequent rebuilding.) Nearby, protruding through an upper level, de Vaux found a crudely dressed monolith. de Vaux assumed that the monolith was originally erected on the stone pedestal base.

De Vaux imaginatively reconstructed an “open-air shrine” just inside the city gate, complete with massebah (the stone monolith) on a pedestal and a basin receptacle for libations.

Stager and Wolff observe, however, that the monolith and slab-lined basin were part of an olive press. “The Farah basin should be interpreted as an olive crushing vat and the massebah desacralized to the less exalted status of an olive crusher.” Stager and Wolff conclude, “By pouring oil on these lustral waters, we hope to have quieted the stirrings of the water cult.”

Before publication of this article, BAR asked Biran and Laughlin how they would answer Stager and Wolff’s analysis.

Avraham Biran indicated that his conclusions had not changed.

John Laughlin (in a letter to BAR dated February 4, 1984) cautions that “there is not yet sufficient archaeological evidence to determine the function of the installation.” He adds “Stager and Wolff have argued quite cogently that the installation is an olive press, and further evidence may prove them right. But until such evidence is forthcoming, it is difficult to accept their interpretation.”

Laughlin’s reasons follow-

“The construction of the installation does not fit that of most known olive presses, which are usually made from solid stone.

“The basin at Dan has an open, unsealed bottom. It is hard to imagine how produce of any sort could have been crushed in it without considerable loss of the liquid. There is no archaeological evidence that the bottom of the basin was ever coated with plaster.

“Stager and Wolff interpret the pile of perforated stones found adjacent to the basin as counterweights for beams used to press the olives. Such an interpretation is possible but certainly not necessary. If the Danites were ever a part of the Sea Peoples, as some have argued, then the stones might indeed have been ‘votive anchors.’ On the other hand, they may have been used for nothing other than to tether animals. Or again, they may have had no practical or cultic function at all.”

Laughlin observes that perhaps the most damaging criticism of Stager and Wolff’s interpretation concerns their conclusion that the oil expressed from the pulp on top of the slabs flowed into the jars by way of ‘grooves’ cut into the slabs. Biran noted in the Israel Exploration Journal (IEJ)4 that a groove or slit was carved in the southern slab in order to facilitate the flow of liquid into the mouth of the jar, and a similar channel was molded in the plaster covering the northern slab.

Laughlin’s article in BAR included an almost identical statement. Laughlin now comments in his letter to BAR that “the section [in his BAR article] was expanded … This,” he says, “has led to a misconception as to the facts of what was actually found … which I hope to clear up,” as follows-

“Only the southern slab has a ‘groove’ and not only does it not extend the entire length of the slab, it may be nothing other than a natural fissure in the rock. The northern slab does not contain any kind of groove and to my knowledge, there is no archaeological evidence to suggest that it was ever coated with plaster. There was certainly none on it when we excavated it. Consequently, there is no evidence that the northern slab ever had any kind of groove or channel in it. Furthermore, there is no collection basin of any kind on either of these slabs, their shape being such that if olives were pressed on them by any means, the oil would easily flow in every direction.” [Emphasis J.L.]

Although Biran and Laughlin hold to their view of a water installation at Dan, Stager and Wolff’s arguments have convinced most of the scholarly world that it is an oil press. William G. Dever has called their analysis “brilliant.”5

But for all the brilliance of Stager and Wolff’s analysis, credit for first publication of the idea that oil—not water—was flowing into the sunken vats at Dan must go to BAR readers Cathy and Terry Small.

a. Bamah refers to a large open-air platform used for cultic rituals such as sacrifices. Sometimes a bamah is called a “high place.”

b. Independently, the same interpretation was offered by Oded Borowski in “A Note on the ‘Iron Age Cult Installation’ at Tel Dan,” Israel Exploration Journal 32-1 (1982).

c. “Production and Commerce in Temple Courtyards An Olive Press in the Sacred Precinct at Tel Dan,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (BASOR) 243 (1981). Although the date of the BASOR containing Stager and Wolff’s article was 1981, the journal actually appeared in print in 1982. (Frequently scholarly journals fall behind in their publication schedules but continue to date issues according to the planned sequence.) Stager and Wolff’s article was written late in 1981, as a result of hearing Biran present his ideas in Dallas in December 1980.

d. As BAR was about to go to press, a phone call from Trude Dothan, co-director of the excavations at Tel Miqne (Biblical Ekron), brought us news of yet another oil press, uncovered this past summer at Ekron. This one, dated to the seventh century B.C., is also the type with a central basin flanked by basins on either side. In addition, the excavators found perforated stones and charred wood from a beam. Nearby, Dothan reports, a small horned altar was discovered.

e. Stager points out that “virgin oil” was still being used in sanctuary lamps in this century in Artas, a Moslem community near Bethlehem. G. M. Crowfoot and L. Baldensperger, in From Cedar to Hyssop (New York, 1932), pp. 28–29, describe the oil manufacturing this way-

“There is a rock face with a shelf in it and there are holes on the floor of the shelf in which the women beat and bruise the olives with a stone pounder. When crushed, the pulp is placed in hot water and the oil skimmed from the top when it rises, and this oil is thought to be very pure and peculiarly suitable for offerings to holy places to be burnt in the lamps hung there.”

1. Avraham Biran, “Two Discoveries at Tel Dan,” Israel Exploration Journal (IEJ) 30 (1980), p. 90.

2. George L. Kelm and Amihai Mazar, “Notes and News- Tel Batash (Timnah), 1982,” Israel Exploration Journal 33 (1983), p. 126 and esp. Plate 16-C.

3. Lawrence E. Stager, “The Finest Olive Oil in Samaria,” Journal of Semitic Studies XXVIII/1 (Spring 1983).

4. Biran, IEJ 30 (1980), p. 90.

5. William G. Dever, “Material Remains and the Cult in Ancient Israel- An Essay in Archeological Systematics,” The Word of the Lord Shall Go Forth—Essays in Honor of David Noel Freedman in Celebration of His Sixtieth Birthday, p. 584, note 30.

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